The Old Oyo Empire was a notable Yoruba empire composed of what is today known as Benin and Western Nigeria. It rose through the outstanding organisational and administrative skills of the Yoruba people. Wealth was gained from trade and its powerful cavalry. It was one of the foremost and powerful political states in the entirety of West Africa from the mid-7th century to the 18th century. It holds sway not only over most of the other kingdoms in Yoruba land but also over nearby African states, notably the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey in the Modern Benin Republic.
The origin of the Old Oyo Empire lies greatly with Oranmiyan, the last Prince of Oduduwa. He was the last born of the Yoruba kingdom of Ile Ife. Going back memory lane, the Yoruba race is said to have originated from Oduduwa. According to legend, Oduduwa had only one son ‘OKANBI’ who in return gave birth to seven children out of which proceeded Oranmiyan, the last prince of Oduduwa, who became the ancestral father of the Old Oyo empire.
The Old Oyo Empire had its headquarters stationed at Oyo-Ile between (1300-1535) and (1600-1896). The common language of the people of the Old Oyo Empire was mainly the Yoruba language while the main religion was Traditional religion, Christianity and Islam. The Empire was ruled by Alaafin Oranmiyan, Oba Adeyemi Alowoloda 1.
The Old Oyo Empire had a strong legislative government comprising the Oyo-Mesi and Ogboni who both checkmate the activity of the Alaafin. Its landmass spread across 150,000 km2 (58,000 SQm)
The history of the Old Oyo empire cannot be complete without mentioning its mythical origin.
The mythical origin of the Old Oyo Empire lies with Oranmiyan as earlier noted, who was the last prince of the Yoruba kingdom of Ile-Ife. In an attempt to launch a punitive raid on their neighbours for insulting their father Oduduwa the first Ooni of Ife, Oranmiyan and his brothers launched an attack against them. However, in the course of the attack, a quarrel ensued between them and this led to a split up between their armies which led Oranmiyan to wander about the wilderness of the southern shore until reaching Bussa.
While at Bussa, the local chief there entertained him and his armies and later provided a large snake with a magical charm attached to its throat. The chief instructed Oranmiyan to follow the snake wherever it leads and stops. The snake led him to a place and stopped there then disappeared after seven days.
Consequently, this was the site where Oranmiyan founded Oyo and thereafter made a new kingdom there then he became the first ‘Oba’ which means king or paramount ruler with the title ‘Alaafin of Oyo’.
NOTABLE PERIODS OF THE OLD OYO EMPIRE
The following are notable periods of the old Oyo empire;
1. THE EARLY PERIOD（12th-1535）
At this period Oranmiyan who was the first king was succeeded by Oba Ajaka who was deposed of the throne because of a lack of Yoruba military virtue. The leadership was then conferred on Ajaka’s brother ‘Sango’ who later became the deity of thunder and lightning. Ajaka was later restored after the death of Sango but this time his rule was more oppressive and warlike.
2. THE IMPERIAL ERA
Under this era, the Yoruba of Oyo went through an interregnum of 80 years as an exiled dynasty after being defeated by the Nupe. They later re-established Oyo as a more centralized and expansive government, spreading over a vast empire. The Old Oyo empire spread tremendously and thus became the most populous kingdom in Yoruba history.
3. ZENITH ERA
By 1680, the Oyo Empire spanned across over 150,000 square kilometres. It reached the height of power in the 18th century. It was held together by mutual self-interest.
4. DECLINE ERA
The Oyo empire began to decline in early 1754 with the dynastic coup sponsored by the Oyo Prime Minister ‘’Gaha‘’. Gaha in his quest for absolute power, conspired with the Oyo-Mesi as well as the Ogboni to force four successive Alaafins to commit ritual suicide after they had been presented with the symbolic parrot’s egg.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE EMPIRE
From 1650 onward, the old Oyo empire entered a period of expansion, where it extended its rule over most communities between the Volta River in the west to Benin and the Niger River in the east. The height of Oyo’s militaristic expansion was in 1748 following the subjugation of the kingdom of Dahomey, which occurred in two phases (1724-30 and 1738-48). The empire then began trading with European merchants on the coast of the port of Ajase (Porto-Novo).
The increase in wealth brought about conflicts among the political leaders. A bitter civil war took place during the reign of Alaafin Abiodun, who after defeating his opponents pursued a policy of economic development based primarily on the coastal trade with European merchants. His sole focus on the economy weakened and neglected the military, causing in effect a weakening of the central government.
During the colonial period, the Yoruba were one of the most urbanized groups in Africa with about 22 percent of the population living in large areas with a population exceeding 100,000 and over 50 per cent living in cities. The collapse of the Old Oyo Empire also allowed for former Protectorate states such as Ibadan, Osogbo and Ogbomoso to flourish and develop as independent entities.